Hazardous Waste

As detailed in the book Getting To Zero Waste, definitions are a potent weapon for controlling public thinking. When it comes to anything which might have any kind of toxicity, defining a product as Hazardous Waste controls the way in which it must be treated while giving the reassuring and convenient impression that all that is intended is public safety. The term “Hazardous Waste” when applied to a product, means “dangerous garbage”, thus implying that:

  1. Nothing useful is possible or intended (because it is garbage), and;
  2. The proper attitude is fear (because it is dangerous).

This simple characterization thus excludes the possibility that:

  1. This product is actually useful. That there are people who value and understand this product who are quite capable of putting it to good use.
  2. That the product should not be contaminated or mixed with other garbage but should be kept clean and secured (because all garbage is equal – mixing it together just means mixing something with itself);.
  3. That the history which caused this product to be called hazardous waste could be faulty, and should not be applied to the next batch or instance of this product (since reuse is a higher goal than creating garbage);
  4. That the proper attitude, instead of fear, would be respect for a significant value; and lastly;
  5. That the proper way to manage this product is to take advice from, or place it in the hands of someone with advanced theoretical and practical training in using it, before it ever became a waste.

As a chemist who has been finding perfectly fine uses for many chemicals considered useless by others, I would recommend that chemists be formed into consulting and research centers for finding ways to reuse all manner of chemicals instead of discarding them.

The worst day in the history of designating chemicals to be “dangerous garbage” was May 19, 1980. This was the day that the US EPA came out with its omnibus regulations for unwanted chemicals. Suddenly you could no longer reuse chemicals as you normally did without having the immensely more knowledgeable long nose of the government sticking right into your business. Suddenly, there was a presumption that hazardous waste was caused when the merest thought flickered through your mind saying “I don’t need these chemicals”.  That set the clock running and if you did not call up a chemical destruction specialist (a chemical dumper) within 90 days you were guilty of a felony for every day beyond 90 days that the chemicals remained on your property.

You think I’m exaggerating and joking don’t you? I’m deadly serious. Look up those paranoid times. A single stray thought could set the clock running. That was policy as enforced by judges.

Suddenly ordinary ways of keeping track of chemicals in inventory were insufficient. Suddenly for any chemical that embarked on its ninety day voyage to oblivion, it was required by force of law that it be listed on a “hazardous waste manifest”. The form to be used was set in the law. Failure to put the chemical on a manifest was a priori proof of your intent to evade the law and pollute public lands. The listed chemicals were required to follow the manifest into the hands of a new species of specialist called a hazardous waste management specialist who had an official license to dig a prescribed hole in the ground and store your chemical in that hole for all time. He didn’t know any more about anything than anyone else, but he was a major corporation and he had a license to coin money. The cost of burying one drum of chemicals jumped overnight from $200 per drum to $700 per drum. What happened to the drum didn’t change. Just the price.

Of course this draconian drive of the scared chemical using rabbits into the nets of the chemical garbage industry was not officially justified by the close collaboration between the profit seeking chemical dumpers and their government lackeys. It was preceded by a prolonged campaign of scaring the pants off the public with stories about the wild dumping of chemicals in all kinds of pristine places. Real disasters took place. A dump in Elizabeth New Jersey took fire and it was said that if the wind had shifted to blow the smoke over New York City, the whole city would have had to be evacuated. The polluted Cuyahoga River caught on fire four times. Of course something had to be done. But there was no need to outlaw the most effective means of actually solving problems – redesign and reuse – to elevate the worst way of solving problems – destruction and burial – into holy writ. Follow the money!

 May 19, 1980 is when the phrase “cradle to grave” was memorialized into the law. This was the principle that drove the new laws. All chemicals now had graves and it was the role of the regulator to make damn sure that they proceeded smoothly into that grave. A chemical which is simply reused has no grave and so has no official existence. A very suspicious state of affairs, and one to be mistrusted. With stated penalties of a year in jail and a $25,000 fine for every day that a chemical was not buried or destroyed, starting on day ninety-one, chemical companies looked askance at any scheme to do anything but put chemicals into their assigned graves.

The new regulations were intended to be enforced by the EPA under the rubric of The Resource Conservation And Recovery Act.  Did this law now require every single chemical without exception to be destroyed or buried? Almost! There was only one loophole, and it was only this loophole which allowed any chemicals to escape their graves and actually be Conserved or Recovered (see the name of the Act).

Section 261.2(e) of RCRA describes materials that are not solid wastes when recycled.  Note the tortured language in which such materials are defined. These are materials which are:

  • used or reused as ingredients in an industrial process to make a product, provided the materials are not being reclaimed; or,
  • used or reused as effective substitutes for commercial products; or,
  • returned to the original process from which they are generated, without first being reclaimed. The material must be returned as a substitute for raw material feedstock, and the process must use raw materials as principal feedstocks.

Here is the concept. You need to know that “solid” waste has none of its common meaning. It refers to any chemical waste which can be a liquid, a gas, a slurry or anything inbetween. So if some chemical is NOT a solid waste, than all of the destruction mandates of the rest of RCRA do not apply.

However, why would they care that the reused chemical not be reclaimed and what in the world does reclaimed mean anyway? (Hint: they didn’t say). In practice, it came to mean that you could not do separations or cleanup of the reused material. You had to use it as is.  But what does “as is” mean? (Hint: they didn’t say.) But which operation is part of the basic process and which operation is added on to “clean up” or “reclaim” an otherwise contaminated “waste” and why would they care anyway unless they were trying to throw up spurious barriers in the way of reuse?

For example, let’s imagine that a drug production process uses isopropyl alcohol as a solvent and afterwards distills it off the reaction mixture but now it has 1% acetaldehyde in it. Let’s say, within the process, you can do a second distillation that separates the acetaldehyde from the isopropyl alcohol and produces two pure solvents. Now both of them can be reused in the next batch.

But wait! That second distillation.  Could that be the dreaded “reclaiming”? Oh my god! Now we are in trouble! It is much safer to just direct the mixture of both solvents into an incinerator, burn them, destroy their value, force new solvents to be made somewhere else thus helping to degrade the planet by that amount, but be safe from some overzealous pencil pusher who may decide that the company has been breaking the law for several years and owes a multi-million dollar fine.

I actually worked with a company that faced exactly this conundrum. I’m not making this stuff up.

The official website of the only non profit dealing with Zero Waste that adheres to a consistent philosophy based on stated principles.